Got the new Action Comics #1 yesterday and managed to save it for the very end of the evening, with ice cream.
It was totally worth it.
If the whole DC reboot has done only one thing right, it’s given us Grant Morrison writing a new take on Superman. And it’s pretty freaking great. I’ve been reading a lot about Superman (and Supermen) lately, including Supergods, Morrison’s own book-length essay on comics, Tom DeHaven’s Our Hero: Superman on Earth and Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, which is a dystopic look at Superman gone evil.
The main problem with Superman is that everyone knows his story. Morrison himself summed it up in eight words: “Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple.” When a character grows into an icon, it’s harder to tell new stories about him. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to generate dramatic tension about a hero who will always survive whatever is thrown at him.
Of course, all franchise characters always survive. (Wolverine and Batman are somehow more realistic than Superman? Really? When was the last time a bullet stopped either of them?) The tension comes from tricking the reader into forgetting that fact for a moment.
Morrison gives us a new way of looking at Superman. This is Superman fresh off the farm, confident in the way only someone who’s never been hurt can be, and absolutely determined to save everyone. He’s having a great time, too — outracing bullets and police cars and knocking the crap out of bullies. It’s the same laughing, joyful Superman De Haven describes, the one who appeared in the first Action Comics back in 1938. (The slightly more mature version who showed up in Justice League #1 last week only shows up for one panel, but he radiates that same easy confidence with a little more calm.)
And what’s most important is he can be trusted with this insane amount of power. The real secret of Superman is that he would scare us witless in real life. Waid’s Irredeemable shows this in graphic detail. What makes Superman a hero is not his power, but his ability to use it in a truly moral fashion. The little guys in Metropolis love him and the big bosses fear him for precisely this reason. Even the costume works in this context. Sure, it’s slightly dorky — a T-shirt, short cape and jeans. But when it’s on a guy who can jump from the top of a skyscraper and land without a scratch, it takes him from godlike status to almost human. And that’s why Superman wears it. He doesn’t want people to be afraid of him. He wants them to trust him because he really does want to do what’s best for everyone. That’s only possible if people can talk to him without wetting their pants in fear.
Further emphasizing the contrast between Man and Superman, Clark Kent is just a struggling freelance reporter. He’s a nobody. He can’t get hired by the Daily Planet because he lacks connections and an Ivy League degree. And he’s alone. His only friends in the city seem to be his landlady and Jimmy Olsen, who’s already more successful than Clark is. He hasn’t even met Lois Lane yet. (He owes a lot to Peter Parker here, both in his looks and the general squalor of his living arrangements, just like Peter Parker owed a lot to Superman back in his first appearance.) But he’s still exposing injustice even when he’s not in the blue shirt and cape.
While the pace of the storytelling in most of the other new 52 books is glacial– Justice League, I’m looking at you here — Morrison manages to cram all this information in between two big action set pieces, including Superman stepping in front of a speeding bullet train.
Morrison has done exactly what he’s been promising all these years. He’s made Superman a character who looks brand-new without losing any of what makes him special. It’s probably not going to bring anyone back to reading comics or restore Superman to his million-issue sales glory. And soon enough, we’re going to get Superman wearing the slick blue suit and full-length red cape. He’ll fight Darkseid and push planets back into orbit and all that. But for now, I’m really enjoying a Superman who slaps around wife-beaters, rescues innocent people, leaps tall buildings in a single bound, and does it all with a smile.
Right now, at this moment, there are bins of half-price trade paperbacks going unfondled by me. There are lines of people waiting for hours for the chance to see movie trailers a month before everyone else and I am not one of them. There might be a 40-year-old nerd embarrassing himself in front of Paul Levitz right now, but it is not me this time.
That’s right. I’m not at Comic-Con. I have a newborn baby girl, a three-year-old and a novel due. The choice was not actually that agonizing or difficult.
Thanks to the Internet (and Geoff Boucher), I can get all the news without shoving my way through the crowds. I believe that this year roughly a kajillion people are expected to show up, topping last year’s previous record.
It should be obvious to anyone that geek culture has won, and Comic-Con is its annual victory dance. Even James Wolcott is at Comic-Con this year. Now that Vanity Fair covers Nerd Prom, maybe everyone can finally stop using the goddamn headline, “Not just for kids anymore.”
Like this guy, I feel the need for some credit and recognition: I was a geek long before it was cool. I can still name all the members of the Legion of Super-Heroes (see my embarrassment and Paul Levitz, above); I read Alan Moore before Watchmen; and I was properly ashamed of myself for indulging in what was supposed to be a diversion for subliterates and grade-schoolers.
My very first Comic-Con, I dragged my then-girlfriend/now-wife along. Guys still stared at her like she was some kind of alien species in their midst, and she wasn’t even in spandex. (To be fair, guys stare at her everywhere.) Now the floor is packed with women, many of whom are wearing outfits like the “Wookini.” My second or third Comic-Con, I saw Grant Morrison just hanging out in one of the aisles and said hello. We talked for almost 30 minutes without another person interrupting. I cannot imagine that happening now. For starters, Morrison’s phalanx of elite supermodel bodyguards would never let me near him. Not that I would get that close, since I’d be at the back of the mob straining to touch his blazing white suit.
The backlash is inevitable at this point. Some people cannot wait to turn their backs on the whole thing, as if they’re just as embarrassed as I used to be. Like horror movies a while ago, there’s the forecast of the death of the superhero movie. There’s plenty of evidence for that argument: they’re remaking Judge Dredd, for chrissakes. (This should last at least until The Dark Knight Rises shatters box-office records again.)
Maybe we will return to Jock Culture, which is what I grew up with, and which is still a much bigger generator of revenue, no matter how many kids line up to see Harry Potter at midnight. Maybe we’ll go back to nerds huddling in their nerd-holes, fearful of sunlight and pummelings. Lord knows it is still not easy to be a kid, no matter how many movies they make about guys in spandex.
I’m reading Morrison’s Supergods, just released this week. It’s a book-length essay encapsulating all the things Morrison has been saying in his comics for the past couple decades. But this is the graf that really stood out to me so far:
When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem so much like fantasy anymore. The world is badly in need of saving. Maybe we’re not escaping into comic book worlds as much as we are looking for answers and heroes and hope. Given the alternatives, I would rather have my kids dressing in day-glo colors and believing in infinite possibilities fueled by solar rays and pure imagination. So if they want to go, I’ll take them to Comic-Con someday.
And maybe if we’re lucky, they will come back from their insane splash-page adventures with the ideas that could teach us all to fly.
Grant Morrison, on why he doesn’t envy the president. Any president.
I tend to agree.
Yes, yes, I know: it’s Comic-Con. And once again, I’m not going. As it turns out, having a toddler cuts down on the time available to invest in nerd obsessions. Who knew? I am a little sad about that — I’ve been to Comic-Con almost every year I’ve lived in California — but not too much. I usually spend all my time among the vendors, buying far too much stuff. The last time I went, I ran out of vendors before I ran out of money, which was a first. The show — and comics geekdom in general — finally has the attention of the greater world, if not exactly the respect. That’s a good thing. But it does cut down on the number of surly, unwashed comics shop owners with stacks of dusty boxes, in favor of giant displays featuring Scarlett Johansson in a skintight leather suit as the Black Widow…
You know what? That’s all just fine.
But since I’m not at SDCC, I offer up a couple other facets of the geek world for your viewing pleasure today.
First, an interview at the Onion AV Club with Grant Morrison, the mad genius behind Invisibles, We3, Final Crisis, Seaguy, Marvel Boy, and a crapload of other comics. I saw Morrison speak at Meltdown Comics last month, and even when he’s just knocking ideas around, he usually comes up with an entirely new way of looking at things.
Next, on the other side of the continent from Comic-Con, an exhibit of stitch-related crafts dedicated to Star Wars. This is for my wife, who won’t recognize many of the characters, but will love to examine the knitting. You’re welcome, sweetie.
I was debating whether I even needed to go the comic book store today, and then I checked out comiclist.com, and realized I had to get there before anyone else got their grubby mitts on my loot.
Here’s what I got:
- Astro City: The Dark Age, Book Three, #2 — Kurt Busiek’s history of a fictional town overpopulated with super-heroes; as the title implies, these are the bad times, roughly analogous to the 1970s, when comics started to aim for an older audience.
- Batman and Robin #1 – Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely reboot the franchise yet again, as Dick Grayson takes over the cowl in the absence (and presumed death) of Bruce Wayne.
- Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #3 — Another Morrison tale, but I’m not sure I can summarize it. For starters, I have no idea what’s going on.
- Irredeemable #3 — A Superman-type character goes absolutely batshit crazy. This has been done before. In fact, another book I bought this week — The Mighty #5 — has pretty much the same plot. But writer Mark Waid is turning this into a genuine mystery: what made the world’s most perfect man go so completely wrong?
- Captain Britain and MI13 Annual #1 — a break in ongoing war between England and Dracula (yes, you read that right) to explain where Captain Britain’s wife has been for the past year or so.
- Dark Avengers #5, Secret Six #10, Agents of Atlas #6 — In order: bad guys pretending to be good guys, bad guys uncertain just how bad they really are, and good guys pretending to be bad guys. Got all that? Doesn’t matter. Generally the most entertaining and well-written books on the stands.
You might have noticed a pattern here. Lots of villains in funnybooks these days, and they’ve come to take over the titles from the heroes who are supposed to be the stars. Part of this is because villains are almost always more interesting than heroes — Everybody knows what drives Othello, while everyone wants to know what’s driving Iago.
But part of this is a result of the trend that began in the ’70s, and is chronicled in Astro City — the endarkening (to steal a word from Michael Ventura) of comic books. What began with giving heroes problems and emotions eventually led to super-guys only slightly less psychopathic than the other super-guys they disemboweled.
This blurring of the lines between good and bad guy means someone has to tell stories that re-drawthe borders. All of these writers and artists are, in their own ways, working out the difference between a hero and a villain. At the end, we’re going to find out what defines a hero.
At least, that’s what I hope. It’s entirely possible that we’ll just have another big, building-crushing fight between supermen.
And I’m cool with that, too.